Female engineers working in manufacturing or construction go back and forth between office meetings and hazardous sites where protective boots are mandatory. These steel toe boots are often ill-fitting and clunky, and most women hate them. This was Anastasia Kraft’s experience.
After years of complaining and commiserating as an engineer herself, Kraft founded Xena Workwear in 2019, specializing in stylish work boots for women. Not stiletto heeled or rhinestone studded boots, of course, but rather clean, classic designs of various heights from ankle to knee, with side zippers. The boots cost $170-$240.
Besides the hidden steel tip toe, Xena Workwear boots, both leather and vegan leather, feature slip resistant soles among other protective details. Xena boots have been spotted on women in a variety of STEM professions, as well as women in managerial roles, like Carol Tomé, the CEO of UPS.
Xena Workwear is based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where Kraft worked as a project engineer. Kraft first arrived in the United States from Germany, where her family had immigrated from Kazakhstan. She came to the U.S. for an internship at a German-owned steel cutting facility near Milwaukee. “I was just blown away by the kind people in Wisconsin,” says Kraft, “and this very entrepreneurial culture in the U.S.” Kraft met her now husband, Dmitry, who is part of the Xena Workwear team, and eventually returned to live in the U.S.
Times of Entrepreneurship spoke with Kraft about creating a business making stylish steel-toed boots for women and why she continued in the early days despite her family’s concern about giving up a safe, well-paying job to launch a risky startup.
Nina Roberts: First, your own experience working in manufacturing— and hating your boots—is the inspiration behind Xena Workwear, correct?
Ana Kraft: Yes, I worked as a project engineer, which means working with a team to develop a project plan and help them execute it. Part of my contract was that I had to dress professionally at those job sites. When meetings wrapped up, one of the guys would say, “Alright, let’s go up and see the factory floor,” to check on the project we just discussed. In most cases, I was the only woman in the room out of 10 to 20 engineers. I had to say, “Wait, guys, I have to run back to my desk,” to put on my clunky work boots.
I always felt like a clown in work boots, and they were incredibly uncomfortable. None of the boots fit, so it felt like they were a safety hazard rather than actually protecting me.
NR: That sounds unpleasant and even dangerous.
AK: I discovered that companies apply the so-called “shrink it and pink it” concept. They take men’s shoes, or men’s jackets, make them smaller in pink or purple. This is not what professional women want. We have differently shaped hands, feet.
NR: And bodies.
AK: Exactly. We need clothes that fit so we can focus on the job. Initially, I thought I was the only one who complained about my shoes. But then every time I talked to my female co-workers, or engineer friends in Germany, everyone hated their steel toe boots.
It’s already difficult enough to fit into a male-centric work environment and having PPE that doesn’t fit right is just an unnecessary barrier. So after years of complaining, I decided to do something about it and started Xena Workwear.
NR: Are there official PPE requirements to work on manufacturing floors?
AK: Different work environments have different rules for PPE. In most manufacturing facilities, you have to wear safety shoes that have a protective toe cap and are slip resistant. Sometimes you need to wear safety glasses, earplugs, a safety vest, a hardhat. It really depends on the hazards in a specific facility.
NR: When you started talking about Xena Workwear as a business, what was the reaction?
AK: In the beginning, my husband and I didn’t have support from our families. Some of the early responses were, “You guys don’t know anything about shoes.” “This is way too risky.” “Why would you quit a well-paying, safe job?” Our parents lived through the Soviet Union, which was difficult. Everyone thought it was just crazy and stupid. And we did it anyways. Now everyone’s on board.
NR: You grew up in Kazakhstan and then Germany?
AK: I was born in Kazakhstan and moved to Germany at age 10 with my family because my dad had German roots. (Germans ended up in Russia during the reign of Catherine the Great, then pushed eastward afterwards.) And my mom’s side is Ukrainian.
NR: Ukrainian? Oh, I’m sorry what is happening there.
AK: Seeing this massive conflict is just mind-blowing and heartbreaking [pause].
My family decided to move back to Germany, they were welcoming people who had German roots. I have really good memories of growing up in Kazakhstan: beautiful landscapes and fantastic food. But on the downside, I saw how men and women were treated differently. In Kazakhstan, some women were not allowed to sit at the table, depending on the culture, the religion, it’s very weird [laughs].
When I moved to Germany it was a huge cultural shift. I saw women in management roles. We had Angela Merkel, I had the opportunity to choose whatever career I wanted. It was always important to me to get a job that would allow me to be financially independent and have a positive impact in the world, and that’s how I got into engineering.
NR: Did you go to school for engineering in Germany?
AK: Yes, it was a very unique program developed specifically in southern Germany because of the massive automotive manufacturing industry. I had electrical engineering, material science, thermo-fluid dynamics, manufacturing processes and project management. I’m not a specialist in any of those areas, but whenever we come together, I know what we’re talking about.
NR: Back to Xena Workwear, how did you go from an idea, to a company?
AK: We’d been working on the company and in 2019, we got accepted into an accelerator program called gBETA, in Milwaukee. I had to quit my job and do the accelerator full time and it was the right decision. We raised $750,000 two months later.
NR: In venture capital?
AK: It was a mix, our lead investor was a VC firm, Starting Line, based in Chicago. Ezra Galston was our lead investor. We had a few additional angel investors, including the co-founder of Tecovas, Paul Hendrick; Brian Spaly, the founder of Bonobos; and Trunk Club. It was a huge boost of confidence because before that, we only heard things from our family, like, “You guys should not do this.”
We did a soft launch and started getting orders from customers all over the US, so we knew we were on to something.
Launching was actually very scary. I think people imagine a huge celebration and champagne bottles, but it was very frightening when I saw my face in different publications, stories about Xena Workwear. I started thinking, what if we fail? What if women will hate our boots?
One of the earliest lessons I had to learn, really quickly, is to get very comfortable with the thought of failure. Sara Blakely was a huge inspiration, her definition of failure is: Failure is not the outcome, failure is not trying.
NR: How many boot designs does Xena Workwear offer today?
AK: We have six different boots. They are classic and timeless in design, so customers can wear them for multiple seasons; dress them up or down. All are ASTM certified, additionally, there is the electric hazard certification, which protects you from electric shock. Our toecaps are steel and we just developed a toecap made from fiberglass that we plan to launch this fall.
NR: I see Xena also sells blazers.
AK: Yes, we have two, based on the simple concept that women’s clothing does not have pockets. I designed a blazer that has two external pockets for PPE—safety glasses, earplugs, a pen, a small notebook—and a deep internal pocket for a phone. There is a smaller pocket with a swivel clasp for jewelry, you’re not allowed to wear dangly jewelry or rings on the shop floor because they can get caught in machinery and it’s dangerous. I know a few people who shoved jewelry in their jean pockets and lost their wedding rings.
And, they’re machine washable, sometimes you’re in a beautiful office space and the next minute you’re in a dirty, dusty work environment. Women have better things to do than go to the dry cleaners.
NR: Where are your products manufactured?
AK: Our boots are made in Leon, Mexico. They’re known for their craftsmanship with leather. Our blazers are made in Chicago by a woman-owned company. (The blazers cost $150 – $170. — Ed).
NR: How are sales?
AK: We sell about 1,500 pairs a month, 95% of our sales are through ecommerce. We more than doubled our revenue from 2020 to 2021.
NR: What’s on the horizon for Xena Workwear?
AK: Safety shoes is the biggest pain point for women, we’re focused on that. We are also tackling the “shrink it and pink it” approach to workwear. Our goal is to become the go to workwear company for women in STEM, in the trades, and inspire more girls along the way to explore these incredibly well paid and fascinating careers.
This Q&A had been edited and condensed for clarity.